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ILO Calls for Immediate Action Against Intolerable Forms of Child Labour


Press release | 12 November 1996


GENEVA (ILO News) - Some 250 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are working in developing countries, nearly double previous estimates, the International Labour Office (ILO) says in a new report ( Endnote). Of this total, some 120 million children are working full­time, and 130 million work part­time, says the ILO report, Child Labour: Targeting the intolerable .

"We all know that child labour is one of the faces of poverty and that many efforts over many years will be required to eliminate it completely" says Michel Hansenne, Director-General of the ILO. "But, there are some forms of child labour today which are intolerable by any standard. These deserve to be identified, exposed and eradicated without further delay."

The ILO says that because the problem of child labour is so enormous and the need for action is urgent, choices must be made about where to concentrate available human and material resources.

"The most humane strategy must therefore be to focus scarce resources first on the most intolerable forms of child labour such as slavery, debt bondage, child prostitution and work in hazardous occupations and industries, and the very young, especially girls," the ILO report says.

Some 61 percent of child workers, or nearly 153 million, are found in Asia; 32 percent, or 80 million, are in Africa and 7 percent, or 17.5 million, live in Latin America.

There is evidence that child labour also exists in many industrialized countries, including Italy, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. The problem is also emerging in many East European and Asian countries that are in transition to a market economy.

The results of an ILO survey published earlier this year showed that some 73 million children between the ages of 10 and 14 years were working full time in some 100 countries. The latest estimates are based on a new and more accurate methodology recently tested by the ILO in Ghana, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Senegal and Turkey. This takes account of part-time as well as full-time work and covers all working children between the ages of 5 and 14.

Children may be crippled physically by being forced to work too early in life. For example, a large­scale ILO survey in the Philippines found that more than 60 percent of working children were exposed to chemical and biological hazards, and that 40 percent experience serious injuries or illnesses.

In addition, a comparative study carried out over a period of 17 years in India on both children who attend school and children who instead work in agriculture, industry or the service sector showed that working children grow up shorter and weigh less than school children.

In studies carried out in Bombay, the health of children working in hotels, restaurants, construction and elsewhere was found to be considerably inferior to that of a control group of non­working school children. Working children exhibited symptoms of constant muscular, chest and abdominal pain, headaches, dizziness, respiratory infections, diarrhoea and worm infection.

Sexual Differences

Girls more often work in domestic labour; boys work in construction, fields and factories, leading to sexual differences in exposure to hazards.

Girls, because of their employment in households, work longer hours than boys each day. This is one important reason why girls receive less schooling than boys. Girls are also more vulnerable than boys to sexual abuse and its consequences, such as social rejection, psychological trauma and unwanted motherhood. Boys, on the other hand, tend to suffer more injuries resulting from carrying weights too heavy for their age and stage of physical development.

The ILO survey focuses on unsafe and abusive working situations for children. Some of these examples include:

Slavery and forced child labour - Of all working children, those bound in slavery and forced child labour are the most imperiled.

These practices are often underground, but the ILO report points out that children are still being sold outright for a sum of money. Other times, landlords buy child workers from their tenants, or labour "contractors" pay rural families in advance in order to take their children away to work in carpet­weaving, glass manufacturing or prostitution. Child slavery of this type has long been reported in South Asia, South­East Asia and West Africa, despite vigorous official denial of its existence.

Prostitution and trafficking of children - The commercial sexual exploitation of children is on the rise, even though the subject has in recent years become an issue of global concern, says the ILO report.

Children are increasingly being bought and sold across national borders by organized networks. The ILO report states that at least five such international networks trafficking in children exist: from Latin America to Europe and the Middle East; from South and South­East Asia to northern Europe and the Middle East; a European regional market; an associated Arab regional market; and a West Africa export market in girls.

In Eastern Europe, girls from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine are being transported to Hungary, Poland and the Baltic states, or to Western European capitals.

Several well­defined child trafficking routes have been identified in South­East Asia - Myanmar to Thailand; internally within Thailand; from Thailand and other countries to China, Japan, Malaysia and the United States; and other routes.

Some one million children in Asia alone are victims of the sex trade, with reports showing the trafficking in young girls on the rise in Thailand and other countries. In Latin America, a large number of children work and live on the streets, where they become easy victims of commercial sexual exploitation. A number of African countries, including Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe are faced with rising child prostitution.

Agriculture - Children work in agriculture throughout the world and often face hazards through exposure to biological and chemical agents.

Children can be found mixing, loading and applying pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides, some of which are highly toxic and potentially carcinogenic. Pesticides exposure poses a considerably higher risk to children than to adults, and has been linked to an increased risk of cancer, neuropathy, neuro­behavioral effects and immune system abnormalities.

Mortality among Sri Lanka children farm workers from pesticides poisoning is greater than from a combination of childhood diseases such as malaria, tetanus, diphtheria, polio and whooping cough.

The operation of farm machinery by children also leads to many accidents that kill and maim.

Mining - Child labour is used in small­scale mines in many countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Child miners work long hours without adequate protective equipment, clothing or training. They are also exposed to high humidity levels and extreme temperatures.

Mining hazards include exposure to harmful dusts, gases and fumes that cause respiratory diseases that can develop into silicosis, pulmonary fibrosis, asbestosis and emphysema after some years of exposure. Child miners also suffer from physical strain, fatigue and musculoskeletal disorders, as well as serious injuries from falling objects. Children working in gold mines are endangered by mercury poisoning.

Ceramics and glass factory work - Child labour in these industries is common in Asia but also can be found in other regions. Children often must carry molten loads of glass dragged from tank furnaces at a temperature of 1500­1800 degrees Centigrade. They also work long hours in rooms with poor lighting and little or no ventilation. The temperature inside these factories, some of which operate only at night, ranges from 40 to 45 degrees C. Floors are covered with broken glass and in many cases electric wires are exposed. The noise level from glass­pressing machines can be as high as 100 decibels or more, causing hearing impairment.

The main hazards in this industry are exposure to high temperatures leading to heat stress, cataracts, burns and lacerations; injuries from broken glass and flying glass particles; hearing impairment from noise; eye injuries and eye strain from poor lighting; and exposure to silica dust, lead and toxic fumes such as carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide.

Matches and fireworks industry - Match production normally takes place in small cottage units or in small­scale village factories where the risk of fire and explosion is present at all time. Children as young as 3 years of age are reported to work in match factories in unventilated rooms where they are exposed to dust, fumes, vapours and airborne concentrations of hazardous substances - asbestos, potassium chlorate, antimony trisulphide, amorphous red phosphorous mixed with sand or powdered glass, tetraphosphorous trisulphide. Intoxication and dermatitis from these substances are frequent.

Deep­sea fishing - In many Asian countries, especially Myanmar (Burma), Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, children work in muro­ami fishing, which involves deep­sea diving without the use of protective equipment. Children are used to bang on coral reefs to scare the fish into nets.

Each fishing ship employs up to 300 boys between 10 and 15 years old recruited from poor neighbourhoods. Divers reset the nets several times a day, so that the children are often in the water for up to 12 hours. Dozens of children are killed or injured each year from drowning or from decompression illness or other fatal accidents from exposure to high atmospheric pressure. Predatory fish such as sharks, barracudas, needle­fish and poisonous sea snakes also attack the children.

Child domestic workers - Child domestic service is a widespread practice in many developing countries, with employers in cities often recruiting children from rural villages through family, friends and contacts. Violence and sexual abuse are among the most serious and frightening hazards facing children at work, especially those in domestic service. Such abuse leads to permanent psychological and emotional damage.

There are no estimates on how many children are employed in domestic service because of the "hidden" nature of the work, but the practice, especially in the case of girls, is certainly extensive. For example, studies in Indonesia estimate that there are around 400,000 child domestic workers in Jakarta and up to 5 million in the country as a whole. In Brazil, 22 percent of all working children are in domestic service, and in Venezuela, 60 percent of all working girls between 10 and 14 years are in domestic service.

The majority of child domestic workers tend to be between 12 and 17 years old, but some surveys have identified children as young as 5 or 6 years old. For example, a Bangladesh survey of child domestic workers found that 38 percent were 11 to 13 years old, and nearly 24 percent were 5 to 10 years old. Other surveys found that 11 percent of child domestic workers were 10 years old in Kenya; 16 percent were 10 years old or less in Togo; and 26 percent were less than 10 years old in Venezuela.

Hours for domestic child workers are very long. In Zimbabwe, the work day is 10­15 hours long; in Morocco, a survey found that 72 percent of such children start their working day before 7 a.m. and 65 percent could not get to bed before 11 p.m. Surveys in many countries uncovered alarming evidence of physical, mental and sexual abuse of adolescents and young girls in domestic service.

Construction - Children undertaking heavy work, carrying massive loads and maintaining awkward body positions for a long time can develop deformation of the spinal column. Sometimes, the pelvis can also be deformed, because of excessive stress being placed on the bones before the epiphysis has fused. Children working in construction and other fields are exposed to other toxic and carcinogenic substances, including asbestos, one of the best known of human carcinogens.

Priorities for Action

The ILO wants to focus attention on the "invisibility" of endangered children. "One reason why modern societies and governments have not been more active in curbing the most harmful forms of child labour is that working children are often not readily visible. It is a matter of 'out of sight, out of mind,'" the ILO report says.

One of the most important tools available to the ILO for improving the legislation and practice of its member States in the fight against child labour is the adoption and supervision of international labour Conventions and Recommendations. The ILO adopted its first Convention of child labour in 1919, the year of its foundation, and several more over the decades.

The ILO is now calling for a new Convention that would add specificity and focus on the worst forms and most hazardous types of child labour, including slavery, servitude, forced labour, bonded labour and serfdom, and the measures taken to eradicate them.

ILO action against child labour also includes a technical cooperation programme, the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) now active in 25 countries on three continents.


Child Labour: Targeting the intolerable . International Labour Conference (Report VI (1)) - 86th Session, 1998. ISBN 92-2-110328-5. International Labour Office, Geneva, 1996.